Long Live Rock: The Tragically Hip

Toledo Zoo Amphitheater, June 1996

The zoo is a crazy place for a rock concert, but for the Tragically Hip, this Depression-era amphitheater was perfect. And this was years before Gord Downie sang about Gus, the polar bear in Central Park (In Between Evolution, 2004). I like to think that the Toledo Zoo was his initial inspiration for this later polar bear song (“What’s troubling Gus / Is it nothing goes quiet?”). Anyone who has seen the Hip in concert, or heard Gord Downie on one of his solo shows, knows that he improvises extended monologues during instrumental breaks in the songs. On this particular night in June, 1996, probably during “New Orleans Is Sinking,” Downie went on a long surreal rant about bored polar bears panting in the sun in the American midwest, an improv piece evidently inspired by his pre-concert walk around the zoo. I think in this same monologue Downie riffed on dolphins too, talking about how the artist dolphins never swam with the rest of the pod.

I went to the concert with Scott, and maybe he remembers some of the monologue too. The Hip was the only live show I saw with Scott, though he and I saw dozens of movies together. I can’t remember how I got Scott hooked on the Tragically Hip, but I did. A month or two after the concert, when I moved away from Toledo, Scott surprised me with the Hip’s rare self-titled 1987 debut CD. By 1996, with moody songs like “Nautical Disaster” and “Springtime in Vienna,” the Hip had moved light years beyond “I’m a Werewolf, Baby.” How could they not?

As an aside that doesn’t fit in with the usual nostalgic tone of all my concert posts, I have to say that the Hip’s online presence is remarkably rich, a model of what a Web 2.0 rock band should look like. In true “Here Comes Everybody” fashion, the site combines Hip-produced content with fan-generated media. Every set list for every show ever is online — here’s the set list for the 1996 Toledo Zoo show. And fans can add their own concert stories in the “Hip Story Project,” which is essentially a digital archive open to everyone, much like the online collections my neighbors at the Center for History and New Media design.

Funny thing, though, I am not going to post my story — this story here — in the Hip’s archive. It belongs to me and my own collection of concert memories. Ultimately these stories are not about any particular band, or even the concert experience, but something much more intangible. The past. And not just any past. My past.

Long Live Rock: Dougie MacLean

The Ark, Ann Arbor, circa 1996

Another concert with Tim, who was in grad school at Michigan by this point. Dougie was fantastic — The Ark is an intimate venue, and as I remember it, we were sitting just a row or two from the stage. I watched transfixed as Dougie tuned his guitar differently for each song, taking only seconds to go from a standard EADGBE to a rich open tuning like DADABD.

What really stands out in my mind twelve years later is how I came to the music of Dougie MacLean in the first place, through a series of acquaintances in college whose names I have trouble even recalling. At the end of the line was Wendy, whose name I do recall, though I don’t know what her last name is these days. On a mix tape I must still have, tucked away in some shoebox — though with no means to play it — she had included “Ready for the Storm” and another MacLean song, and I’m having trouble just now remembering which one. Maybe “Singing Land” or “Caledonia.” But definitely “Ready for the Storm.” I’ll never forget how blown away I was when I heard the song for the first time. It was even more powerful when I heard Dougie perform it live a few years later, but some of that power must have come from the bailfuls of nostalgia that swamped me at the time.

Going back a few years, Wendy had dubbed the two songs from a mix tape of her roommate’s, a zoology major named Heidi. I want to say Heidi Michaels was her name, but I can’t say for sure. Google doesn’t help in this regard. She was supposed to have gone off to grad school to study wolves, but I don’t know that she did.

Heidi’s mix tape was made by a friend of hers, a sometime suitor named Colin. I want to say Colin’s last name was Michaels too, but that can’t be right. This is where the trail really goes cold. I don’t think Colin and I ever said much to each other. The odd thing is that one spring break, 1992 it must have been, a van full of these people I’m naming drove to Hilton Head, where Colin’s family had an empty condo waiting for us on a golf resort. Who all went on this trip I’m having trouble remembering: Wendy, Heidi, Colin, me, and some other people too. There was one of Heidi’s friends, named OT, which was short I guess for Othelia. She moved to Brazil after graduation. I seem to remember this. To work in a pizza parlor with her older sister, who was married to a Brazilian man? I think I’ve got that right.

The beach at Hilton Head was usually too cold for swimming, and none of us golfed. Heidi and Colin mostly went birding.

Funny, as I wrote that last sentence I’m listening to a Dougie MacLean CD I bought years later, and the song playing right now is “High Flying Seagull.”

Anyway, so all these people are gone from my life, and even in 1996 at the concert with Tim, they were gone then too.

Tim and I are still in touch. And Dougie’s still around too. I see he’s going back to The Ark in Ann Arbor this September. If I were a few hundred miles closer I’d try to see him again. It’s the closest he comes to North Carolina. Mostly he’s in Scotland. Everyone is in some place, aren’t they?

Long Live Rock: The Indigo Girls

I’m not quite finished with the concerts of the nineties yet, though from here on out I’ll be jumping around chronologically, as I remember the shows. And here is one I can’t believe I almost forgot:

Indigo Girls, Toledo, 1995

Two things I remember about this show, maybe three.

(1) I went with Tim, my closest friend in Toledo, an alien city at the time. Tim was basically the guy who nudged me on to graduate school after I roosted for a few years as a high school teacher.

(2) This was the Indigo Girls’ Swampophilia tour, the first CD of theirs that I didn’t buy, and never did buy, and I don’t know why, because it’s great.

(3) The show was at the Masonic Complex, a great indoor venue, and I just love saying the name, Masonic Complex. It’s like something Freud would have to diagnose.

(4) Tim and I later saw La Boheme at the Masonic Complex (Masonic Complex, just say it with me). I don’t think the musical qualifies as a rock concert, but it’s worth mentioning anyway, because there’s another great name involved here, a student of mine who I remember seeing at the show, his nose buried in a book the whole time. This would be a troublesome nerd I had a great fondness for, Alaric. If Alaric didn’t have Asperger’s Syndrome, he should have.

So that’s four things I remember, not three. What did the Indigo Girls sing? I have no idea, but I’m sure “Closer to Fine” was in there, the only song of theirs I ever mastered musically and vocally, only because Matt Sutter had told me a few years earlier that the Indigo Girls were the future of alternative music. (And we were in, at the time, the home of the Future of Rock and Roll, 97X…)

More of the Cereal Box Wall

Eventually the cereal box wall had to come down.

I wish I had a picture of that sight but I don’t. It was a mountain of empty cereal boxes, hundreds of them on my dining room floor in the sad little Pheasant Run apartment complex, where I could see and hear the four lanes of the Ohio turnpike out my bedroom window. All I have is this second photograph (larger image), taken from a different angle in 1995.

Needless to say, I was a bachelor at the time.

The Cereal Box Wall

I used to eat a lot of cereal. A lot. Three or four bowls a morning, every morning at 6am just before I went off to teach the teeming hordes of America’s youth at an all boy’s Jesuit high school.

At one point I got sick of throwing out all those cereal boxes–this was 1995, long before curbside recycling became the norm. So I began collecting the boxes, and eventually I had enough to cover an entire 10×8′ section of an interior wall in my apartment.

I snapped a few pictures of this wall, with what camera I don’t even remember. At some point in the past twelve years, again, I don’t remember, I scanned the photos (larger image). And these are the only evidence that once, in Toledo, Ohio, there was a wall of cereal boxes.